PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission backed off its Columbia River standoff with Washington when it met Friday in Corvallis.
But just enough, commissioners hoped, to prompt negotiation with the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission to bring the states back together on co-managing the river’s salmon, and still keep their governor happy.
Under pressure from Gov. Kate Brown, the commission pulled back from a Jan. 20 decision to allow continued gill-netting for summer and fall chinook, contrary to a 2013 plan to phase nets off the river by the end of 2017.
Instead, commissioners voted unanimously to keep gill-nets off spring and summer runs and to allow just 30 percent of the fall chinook allocation to be caught in nets. They also left the door open for alternative, safer fishing gears in the mainstem, including the limited use of tanglenets in the spring if May reviews of the spring salmon run showed enough fish were available.
Sport anglers still get 80 percent of spring and summer chinook allocations and 70 percent of the available fall fish. Commercial nets will still be allowed in off-channel areas, and more hatchery salmon will be produced for those areas.
The complicated decision draws the commission closer – but not all the way – to Washington, which wants only 25 percent of the fall run taken by nets and only for two more years, then all gill-nets off the mainstem – Oregon wants them to remain for fall fish.
Commission Chair Michael Finley said he hopes Washington will be willing to negotiate for an acceptable compromise.
Oregon’s law creating the plan, he said, requires the state to address maximum economic benefits for both commercial and sportfishing. Washington’s commission isn’t under an economic constraint, Finley said.
Without an agreement, the states could remain at odds and, for the first time in nearly 100 years, have to manage the river’s fall fisheries separately.
The changes came after Brown told the commission in a February letter Oregon’s plan to keep gill-nets on the river would make enforcement “complicated, confusing and untenable.”
Friday’s decision followed nearly five hours of testimony and discussion and several testy exchanges between Commissioners Bruce Buckmaster and Holley Akenson and a handful of attendees throughout the afternoon.
In the end, though, it was Buckmaster who turned around, crafting the final motion to back off his contrary January stance, which allowed summer gill-netting with chinook-sized mesh.
“I’m OK taking off the large mesh gill nets, even though I’m troubled doing it,” he said.
The motion passed unanimously, but only after Akenson declared she had “no interest in additional negotiation” if Washington doesn’t agree. Finley, the chair, promised to bring any proposed settlements back to the commission for approval.
Sport anglers have for decades tried to move gill-nets off the lower Columbia River.
In 2012, then-Governor John Kitzhaber crafted a solution that avoided a battle over a ballot measure that would’ve banned them altogether. The compromise approach, agreed to by Washington state, called for gradually moving gill-nets from the main channel onto side channels and bays.
Gill-net opponents argue the commercial tool is indiscriminate, leading to needless death of native fish. Commercial fishermen argue they provide indispensable salmon to taxpayers who don’t sportfish.
Late last year, Oregon’s volunteer commission indicated it was not likely to fully adopt Kitzhaber’s plan. In January, Oregon went one way – maintaining access to the main channel of the river in certain seasons for tangle and gill-nets. Washington largely adopted the Kitzhaber plan, though they stretched out some access to the river for gill-netters for another two years.
Bill Hunsinger, the Port of Astoria’s commissioner, told wildlife commissioners Kitzhaber’s plan has not worked. “And we know it, all of us know it.”
He said following Washington’s policies would mean the death of “150 to maybe 200 small businesses” who rely on commercial gill-netters to survive. “Is that what we want to do in today’s environment?” he asked.
Sportfishing backers told the commission that gill-nets are indiscriminate devices, and more selective fishing hardware exists.
That argument was a constant point of contention during the meeting, as Buckmaster and Akenson said sport fishermen of also killing native fish. Fish and wildlife staffers confirmed that commercial fishermen had a significantly higher rate of killing native species.
Liz Hamilton, the Executive Director of the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, said recreational anglers were concerned about the commission going back on their words.
“When four individuals decide differently than three governors, a legislative body, the stakeholders and the commissioners who negotiated this deal,” Hamilton said, “I think there’s some big concerns.